The Bible is full of visions from God and visions of God. This morning we have heard the record of some of those visions. The first is found in our lesson from the book of The Acts of the Apostles. Scholars agree that this book was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. Though in the Bible the Gospel of John comes between Luke and Acts, it is best to look at Luke and Acts as one continuous work, Luke-Acts. The first section – Luke – begins with the birth of Jesus and records his earthly life and ministry, his death and resurrection, and ends with his ascension into heaven forty days after the resurrection. The second part – Acts – begins where Luke ended, with the ascension of Jesus, and continues with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost ten days later. As its title tells us, this book describes significant actions of the apostles, such as miraculous healings, and it records how the early church grew and developed.
We need some background information to understand Peter’s vision in this morning’s reading. As you know, Jesus was Jewish and his disciples were Jewish. Many of the first followers of Jesus thought that non-Jewish persons – Gentiles – who wanted to join the Way of Christ through baptism had to convert to Judaism first. That meant circumcision as well as following Jewish dietary laws. In the same way that Jesus had been criticized by Jewish religious leaders for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Peter was now being criticized by some of the early Jewish followers of Jesus for eating with uncircumcised Gentiles.
Then Peter had a vision from God. He saw “something like a large sheet coming down from heaven,” and it was filled with all kinds of animals, including animals regarded as unclean – not to be eaten. Peter heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter was a Jew who had strictly followed dietary laws, so he replied, “By no means, Lord.” Then he heard the word of God saying that all that God had made was clean. Peter interpreted his vision in this way, in a statement recorded in chapter 10 of Acts: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
Though at this point in history these concerns of the earliest Christians are no longer concerns for us, we can take a general principle from Peter’s vision that is relevant to us. The general principle is not to exclude, but to include and welcome all groups of people. The Episcopal Church has followed this principle by including women and people of all types of sexual expression as full members of the church, welcomed to serve the church in all its ministries, as lay ministers and as ordained persons. This is our practice, but it is not without controversy. There are people who have left and are leaving the Episcopal Church because they cannot accept this welcome to all. But as Peter said, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
A friend recently sent me a notice of a city councilmember in Georgia who defended the city’s racist employment discrimination by citing his “Christian beliefs,” telling a reporter that “when you see blacks and whites together, it makes my blood boil because that’s just not the way a Christian is supposed to live.” Discrimination on the basis of externals like the color of a person’s skin is most assuredly not Christian, and it is frightening to know that people who call themselves followers of Jesus can so pervert the gospel message. As Peter said, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
When Peter woke from his trance, he found three men who had come from Cornelius, a Gentile in Caesarea. Peter and six other followers of Jesus accompanied these men to Cornelius’ home. Peter preached the good news there, and the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles just as it had upon the Jews at Pentecost. This event confirmed Peter’s vision from God. The Way of Christ was for both Jews and Gentiles. The Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Christ – was and is the gift of God for all people. The Holy Spirit blesses and empowers people to follow Jesus without being bound by the prejudices and sinfulness of human beings, inside or outside of the church.
In the book of the prophet Isaiah we find this message from God to human beings: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8). Jesus lived among us to teach us and to show us God’s ways and God’s vision for human life. This morning’s Gospel reminds us what that is.
As you know, the night before he died Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples. Our lesson from John’s Gospel begins at the Last Supper, just after Judas had gone out into the darkness of the night to betray Jesus. Jesus then spoke to the eleven apostles about his coming death. “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.” Jesus loved these men, and for the years they had traveled and lived with Jesus, these men had felt Jesus’ love. Soon he would be gone. Jesus tells them to love one another as he has loved them. In and through their love for one another they would keep alive the feeling of being loved by Jesus after Jesus was gone. Not only that, the love the disciples had for one another would show everyone what it means to follow Jesus on the Way of love.
Peter’s vision shows us that God does not judge people on the basis of externals, of the accidents of birth and history. Jew or Gentile, male or female, black or white, gay or straight. Jesus teaches that God judges the heart, the source and origin of all our words and actions. Having dark skin is neither here nor there. Having a dark heart, regardless of the color of one’s skin, is what will be judged. And it won’t matter if we are “straight” in sexual orientation if our tongues are crooked, full of lies and hatred. The measure of God’s judgment is the measure of love. We know the famous parable about judgment, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). In this parable Jesus teaches that we will be judged by the compassion in action that we showed or failed to show to our sisters and brothers in need. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
As we mature in faith, as we grow spiritually, our direction is to “put on the mind of Christ.” This isn’t a matter of just doing “good works.” This has to do with the transformation of our hearts so that we will view all people as God’s people, so that we will look with compassion on the world, so that we will act with love and give of ourselves generously. In the wonderful words of Eucharistic Prayer D, “And, that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, [Christ] sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” With thankful hearts and for the love of Christ may we cooperate with Christ’s Holy Spirit and grow in love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.